Discovering a lost cuisine

BEIRUT: Tucked away in the outskirts of Gemmayze, Armenian restaurant Mayrig might have been difficult to spot if not for the busy valet service. The setting, an old stone house with a garden-style walk-through, lined with plants of all sorts, indicates an effort to create a cozy, home-like atmosphere in a bustling location.This ambience is reflected inside and out. The interior is designed like any traditional Levantine home, with oriental carpets, patterned-tile floors and stone-wall interiors. Black-and-white portraits of the owner’s ancestors line the walls, creating a warm and welcoming experience of a kind you might expect at a grandmother’s home. Our host, George, played a major part in making us feel welcome and at home with a few jokes and words of wisdom between every course.We were sampling a degustation menu, which began with a huge selection of salads and appetizers. One of the most popular was the famous eetch, a tangy and spicy salad made with cooked bulgur and tomato paste, lightly topped with parsley. It is similar in some ways to the Lebanese tabbouleh, yet very different in taste and consistency. Perhaps the overall favorite appetizer was the printzov keufteh, a rice-crusted kebbe in which the sweet starchiness of the crispy rice shell blends beautifully with the savory meat-and-pine nut filling.The appetizers ended with a selection of traditional Armenian cheese pies called sou beureg. Three flavors were offered, listed in our order of preference — thyme, sujuk and basterma. Sujuk and basterma are traditional, spicy, air-cured Armenian sausages that became popular in Lebanon after Armenians settled in the country. Thyme and cheese always pair well, but the sujuk pie was overwhelming thanks to its smoky saltiness and the basterma completely overpowered the cheese with its powerful, gamy flavor.We were already starting to feel full as the main courses began to arrive. First to be served was the fishnah kebab, a grilled-beef kebab topped with a wild sour cherry sauce. This was the only real let down of the meal, as the kebab was dry and lacked seasoning. However, the cherry sauce was the perfect balance between sweet and sour.This recipe was brought to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, by an influx of Armenian refugees returning to their homeland after the civil war began in Syria. As such it is a dish that perfectly embodies what Armenian food has become — an ever-changing food culture.Next on the main course menu was the unforgettable manti. Crisp-on-the-outside minced-meat dumplings were doused in a spicy tomato sauce, allowing them to soften, then topped with yogurt and a dash of sumac to balance out the heat. This is definitely a crowd-pleaser at Mayrig and they even offer a vegetarian version made with spinach.Finally, we came to the dessert menu, beginning with the rose loukoum ice cream, a light and airy sherbet with a fun chew due to the inclusion of mastic — a plant resin. Another must-try is the semi-dried apricot stuffed with ashta, a Lebanese milk pudding. The desserts will bring you back to Mayrig, if nothing else does.Mayrig — which means “mother” in Armenian — pays tribute to all the Armenian women through the ages who, despite war and other hardships, were able to ensure that the traditional flavors and recipes of their ancestors endured.Armenian cuisine has been described as a lost cuisine. However, Mayrig proves otherwise as it gathers together varieties from across the regions and generations — and now it is coming full circle by returning to its homeland, with the opening of a new restaurant in Yerevan.

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